Film Review: Breaking down new Lions DB C.J. Gardner-Johnson and how the Lions can use his skills
On Sunday night, the Detroit Lions made a surprising move by signing safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson to a one-year contract. The deal is worth $8 million dollars and it is being labeled as a “prove it” deal for one of the most talented safeties in the NFL.
Last season, Gardner-Johnson was tied for the league lead of six interceptions. Ranked up there with Justin Simmons, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tariq Woolen, it was pretty surprising that CGJ didn’t land a long-term deal.
Maybe he’ll prove himself in Detroit and Brad Holmes will give him the contract he deserves. Time will tell. For now, let’s jump into the tape and review how Gardner-Johnson fits the Detroit Lions!
Playing near the box
Last season, Gardner-Johnson played just about everywhere for the Philadelphia Eagles. In total, he played 873 total snaps. Just over 200 of the snaps came from playing in the box while another 208 of them came from covering the slot. You’ll see from the clips below how he plays aggressive but is also active with his hands and feet to always be involved with the play.
Looking at the play above, you’ll see Gardner-Johnson (Eagles DB #23) start to creep up into the box. As the Cowboys run a toss play out of an off-set I-formation, you’ll notice how Gardner-Johnson flows laterally to the football. He works his hands by pushing off the initial block attempt from the tight end.
Meanwhile, he stays in position with the proper pursuit angle and play speed. As the running back prepares to cut-back inside, he’s met by Gardner-Johnson who tackles with his inside shoulder to then drag the ballcarrier to the ground.
Staying with the same game against the Cowboys, you’ll notice how Gardner-Johnson (Eagles DB #23) is aligned over the C-gap. Shaded to inside shoulder of the tight end, Gardner-Johnson is aligned in what is called a 50.
From this, he could very well be watching the wide receiver that’s aligned as an H-back, the tight end or the running back. His coverages would depend on what potential zone he may have or who would have to cover in man coverage.
That said, this is a run play and Gardner-Johnson does a great job stacking the receiver and attempting to shed him as the running back tries to get to the slightly open hole. But by staying square, the running back is met by Gardner-Johnson for a tackle. It’s worth noting that Gardner-Johnson had to come out after this play due to either a wrist or hand injury. The Cowboys went on to sustain their drive after he came off the field and it ended up in a touchdown.
Effort with tremendous ball skills
As I mentioned earlier, Gardner-Johnson was tied for the league lead of six interceptions this past season. In addition to the interceptions, he also had four pass breakups. While he did give up 41 receptions for 338 yards and four touchdowns (per PFF), there was a lot asked out of him in Philadelphia.
Even when he gave up a reception, he came back the next play with great energy and effort. The energy he plays with is captivating and it wouldn’t be surprising if that’s a reason to why the Lions wanted him part of their defense.
Taking a look at one of his interceptions, the play above showcases one against Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. You’ll notice that the Eagles run Cover 1 against the twins right formation from the Cardinals. In the middle of the field as the free safety, you’ll see Gardner-Johnson (Eagles DB #23) have free range on the middle of the field.
As the wide receiver runs the deep post, Gardner-Johnson floats to the deep middle and reads the ball the entire step of the way. While it’s a bit under thrown, he still does a great job intercepting the pass.
Just talking about effort, the play above screams the type of effort that we’ll get from Gardner-Johnson in Detroit. After getting banged up and missing plays from back-to-back offensive series from the Cowboys, it was like Gardner-Johnson (Eagles DB #23) went to the bench and knew he had to make a play to ensure his team takes over the game.
In the play above, Gardner-Johnson is aligned as the free safety while the Eagles run Cover 1 on defense again. While the quarterback attempts this throw off play-action, it’s severely under-thrown but that doesn’t stop an interception from happening.
With great effort, you’ll see how Gardner-Johnson reads the ball in the air and makes a spectacular diving catch. As he secures the interception, he gets up and runs toward midfield to give the offense a chance to pull ahead in a tight rivalry game.
Overall thoughts and fit with Detroit
When I got the news that Gardner-Johnson had signed with Detroit, I thought I was getting pranked. I triple-checked multiple accounts on Twitter to ensure that it was true. In fact, I even had my wife tap me on the shoulder to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
As one of my favorite players from the 2019 NFL Draft, I felt like CGJ was a Day 2 prospect. He lasted until the 4th round and went 105th overall to the New Orleans Saints. No matter where he’s been, he’s made an impact. I expect the same to happen in Detroit for CGJ.
Best suited to play near the box, in the slot or even as a buzz defender, there will be multiple hats for him to wear in Detroit. By bringing him into the mix, it allows a player such as Tracy Walker to not rush back from his achilles injury and it should only help further the development of Kerby Joseph. The effort that Gardner-Johnson plays with is contagious and it should rub off onto his teammates. With him signing in Detroit over other teams, maybe it’s a sign that the times are indeed changing.